Thursday, 16 September 2010

Lament for the Dorsets

I was asked to listen to some 1960's recordings made of bird calls in Canada. To do this we had to dust off the reel to reel machine which has been languishing on the top shelf of the store cupboard for years.

Listening to the recordings made 40+ years ago it took my mind back to my younger days when my parents had a reel to reel machine and I'd watch the tape on the spools increase or decrease depending on which direction they were going. Somewhere in the recesses of a box at home are recordings my parents made on their machine of Christmas parties and so on. My father was a great one for recording events on tape. I must retrieve them and find out who or what is on there. Many of those I guess will sadly be long gone to the great audio machine in the sky.

I love old technology and using this machine at work was joy. All moving parts, easy to work out how it works, no manuals or complicated handsets, or Windows XP programmes to crash. Just a mechanical machine, some spools and a tape. Not all of the past was good, but I think we have lost something of the simplicity of life with the arrival of ever more complex computers. I love computers, after all I'd not be able to blog if we still had pencil and paper, but just now and again using something which is simple is a joy.

Speaking of the past, while researching subjects on Greenland this week I discovered, there is a culture called the Dorset culture. The Dorset culture (also called the Dorset Tradition) was a Paleo-Eskimo culture around (500 BC - AD 1500) that preceded the Inuit in North America. and why were they called the Dorset culture? Well in 1925 they were discovered in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, by anthropologist Diamond Jenness.

And so as this is a blog about Wessex, an area Thomas Hardy created as he lamented the passing of the old ways, I found this by a Canadian poet, the late Al Purdy who wrote a poem entitled "Lament for the Dorsets" This poem laments the loss of their culture and describes them and their end. Need I say more.

Lament for the Dorsets (Eskimos extinct in the 14th century A.D.)

Animal bones and some mossy tent rings

scrapers and spearheads carved ivory swans

all that remains of the Dorset giants

who drove the Vikings back to their long ships

talked to spirits of earth and water–

a picture of terrifying old men

so large they broke the backs of bears

so small they lurk behind bone rafters

in the brain of modern hunters

among good thoughts and warm things

and come out at night

to spit on the stars

The big men with clever fingers

who had no dogs and hauled their sleds

over the frozen northern oceans

awkward giants..........................killers of seal

they couldn’t compete with the little men

who came from the west with dogs

Or else in a warm climatic cycle

The seals went back to cold waters

and the puzzled Dorsets scratched their heads

with hairy thumbs around 1350 A.D.

– couldn’t figure it out

went around saying to each other


'What’s wrong? What happened?..............

Where are the seals gone?’

And died

Twentieth century people

apartment dwellers

executives of neon death

warmakers with things that explode

– they have never imagined us in their future

how could we imagine them in the past

squatting among the moving glaciers

six hundred years ago

with glowing lamps?

As remote or nearly

as the trilobites and swamps

when coal became

or the last great reptile hissed

at a mammal the size of a mouse

that squeaked and fled

Did they realize at all

what was happening to them?

Some old hunter with one lame leg

a bear had chewed

Sitting in a caribou skin tent– the last Dorset?

Let’s say his name was Kudluk

carving 2-inch ivory swans

for a dead grand-daughter

taking them out of his mind

the places in his mind

where pictures are

He selects a sharp stone tool

to gouge a parallel pattern of lines

on both sides of the swan

holding it with his left hand

bearing down and transmitting

his body’s weight

from brain to arm and right hand

and one of his thoughts turns to ivory

The carving is laid aside

in beginning darkness

at the end of hunger

after a while wind

blows down the tent and snow

begins to cover him

After 600 years

the ivory though

is still warm

© Al Purdy, 2000


  1. Hello,
    I just came upon your blog and very much enjoyed it. I will be back to read more soon. A wonderful weekend to you!

  2. How wonderful that you could listen to the recordings on the reel to reel machine. My daughter is visiting today and we happened to drop into the Goodwill (like your charity shops), and she found a vintage record player for just $4.00 It plays 45's, 78's and 33 and a half. We were surprised at the great sound that still comes from it.